Lawrence Toppman

‘The Edge of Seventeen:’ Not much edge, but a feeling for life at 17

Best friends in high school (Hailee Steinfeld, left, and Haley Lu Richardson) begin to break apart in “The Edge of Seventeen.”
Best friends in high school (Hailee Steinfeld, left, and Haley Lu Richardson) begin to break apart in “The Edge of Seventeen.” AP

I’d guess a survey of film genres over the last 30 years would show that three hold sway: superhero flicks, serial killer scarefests (horror movies included) and comedy-dramas about students laboring through high school in a fog of loneliness, self-doubt and embarrassment.

Yet a movie in any of these genres can still earn a place at the multiplex, if it’s made with skill and sympathy for the characters. “The Edge of Seventeen” qualifies.

I can’t think of a single situation where Kelly Fremon Craig, who makes her feature debut as a writer-director, takes us to a place we haven’t often been. Yet she lays out her heroine’s dilemmas with good humor and understanding, and Hailee Steinfeld (who really is 19) gets completely inside the mind of a high school junior whose life seems a mess in every way.

Nadine (Steinfeld) doesn’t connect with her single mother (Kyra Sedgwick), who at 50 seems adrift in a dull job and a life without a steady guy. She envies her seemingly perfect brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a self-assured senior. She resents Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend since second grade, because Krista and Darian now sleep together.

Nadine adopts a lazy, incompetent history teacher (droll Woody Harrelson) as an unofficial confessor, despite getting no encouragement from him. And she brushes off Erwin (Hayden Szeto), an earnest classmate who’s as socially inept as she but has a crush on Nadine.

It’s impossible to have a spoiler alert for a movie so programmable. You know Nadine’s infatuation for a sexy, dismissive classmate will make trouble for her – but not real trouble, such as an unwanted pregnancy. You know Nadine’s exasperated mom will give up on her – but not really give up, past the point where reconciliation is possible.

Nadine bobs from crisis to crisis, most of them (if not all) self-generated. As Steinfeld’s portrayal makes her more and more likeable, the destination becomes less important. We want her to find her feet emotionally, we know she will, we even know how she will. Like kids being told a new but familiar fairy tale, we can sit back and enjoy the telling.

Craig has long been a fan of James L. Brooks, who gets top credit among the producers. His directing career petered out after “As Good as It Gets” 19 years ago – he has made two minor films since – but he continues to write and produce, and this feels like one of his projects: unhurried, dryly funny, with empathy for both winners and losers. (Well, maybe not the smug sexy guy.) He and Craig were surely kindred spirits in this genial endeavor.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Edge of Seventeen

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Blake Jenner, Haley Lu Richardson, Kyra Sedgwick, Hayden Szeto.

Writer-director: Kelly Fremon Craig.

Length: 105 minutes.

Rating: R (sexual content, language and some drinking - all involving teens).